Hong Kong student protesters march to chief executive's home

A day after Umbrella Movement protest leaders and Hong Kong city officials met for talks, students try another tactic. Protest sites in the city-state remain in place despite a police crackdown and a court injunction to remove barricades.

Kin Cheung/AP
A protester sitting on a barricade tries to stop taxi drivers from removing it near a line of riot police, at an occupied area, in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014.

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Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters marched to the home of Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader on Wednesday after the first talks between the government and student leaders ended in a stalemate.

"I think it is time to seriously consider escalating the movement, such as expanding our occupation to many more places to pressure the government to really face and answer our demands," one student protester, Andy Lau, told Reuters.

The first face-to-face talks between senior Hong Kong politicians and five student leaders demanding a free hand in electing the city's leader were broadcast live. Crowds gathered at three main demonstration sites to watch the debate Tuesday night, in what many in the city hoped would deescalate the movement. Hong Kong has seen more than three weeks of protest designed to halt or slow traffic in the central financial district to call attention to the students' demands.

The so-called "Umbrella Movement" pro-democracy protesters want candidates for Hong Kong’s top leader to be selected in a more democratic fashion as part of what they say was a promise by Beijing in 2007. This summer China's leaders ruled that candidates for the autonomous city-state must be pre-approved in Beijing to ensure they are patriotic. 

Protesters today vowed to continue their occupation of three sites in Hong Kong’s city center, despite court injunctions granted this week to taxi and bus drivers ordering protesters to clear the streets.

As some 200 protesters marched to Chief Executive Leung Chun's home on Wednesday, taxi drivers began tearing down protest barriers in parts of the city occupied by thousands of demonstrators, The South China Morning Post reports.

Rubbish bins, fences, wooden pallets and bamboo poles were ripped up by members of the Taxi Drivers and Operators Association and loaded onto the back of a truck with a crane, as angry protesters rushed to stop the destruction at the Dundas Street end of Nathan Road.

A standoff ensued as protesters defended their barricades by sitting on them or putting the arms over them to shield them. Scores of police carrying shields formed a line to separate the two groups as more obstacles were removed. Police urged both sides to stay calm and not to resort to violence.

"I'm here hoping the government will listen. If they don't listen we will come out again and again to fight for our basic, grassroots nomination right," protester Wing Chan, who took part in the march, told Reuters.

Despite the upheaval in the streets, Tuesday night’s talks were respectful and relatively calm. Five student leaders – clad in black t-shirts reading “Freedom Now” – sat face to face with five top officials in dark business suits. Even though the meeting didn’t reap any tangible results, it was historically significant, reports The New York Times.

It was a remarkably civil and scholarly discussion, all the more so given the generational divide between the sides. Each cited articles of Hong Kong’s Constitution, chapter and verse, to back its points.

Even more remarkable was that it was happening in Hong Kong, the former British colony only a few miles from mainland China, where such a freewheeling public political discussion had not been heard in at least a quarter-century, since students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That protest provoked a bloody crackdown that has reverberated through China ever since….

[Hong Kong’s No.2 Carrie] Lam told the students that the government was willing to submit a new report to Beijing acknowledging the surge of discontent that followed the Aug. 31 decision by China’s National People’s Congress on the election guidelines.

In what appeared to be a further conciliatory signal, she also said the rules could change in subsequent elections.

The students stuck with their demands for immediate changes to Hong Kong’s election law. They want the 2017 elections for the chief executive to be open to a wide range of candidates. But Mrs. Lam’s offer did stir some interest.

Many observers point to the generational and class divides highlighted by recent protests. The Associated Press reports that, “student-led protests are rooted in growing discontent among young people about poor economic prospects amid one of the world’s biggest wealth gaps.”

These divisions became clear in recent comments by Mr. Leung on reasons why changing election processes were not beneficial for Hong Kong’s elite, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

Tuesday's talks took place in an atmosphere charged by controversy after Chief Executive Leung (known by his initials “CY”) told three overseas news organizations that the interests of wealthy Hong Kong citizens needed special protection, and that people who earn roughly $4 an hour – the minimum wage earned by half the population of seven million in one of the most expensive cities in the world – could not have universal suffrage because it would lead to what Mr. Leung called instability and “populism.”

“If it’s entirely a numbers game – numeric representation – then obviously you’d be talking to half the people in Hong Kong [who] earn less than" minimum wage, he said. “You would end up with that kind of politics and policies.”

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